The Old Man in the Woods - a short story

The forest was unusually quiet this morning walking with my black dog, Moe. Just the sound of a slight wind in the trees, the cries of birds, and the patter of Moe’s paws on the forest floor running here and there sniffing, and rushing after small animals. Those squirrels always seem faster than Moe and get the better of her. Off in the distance we heard the church bells toll eight of the clock. We were a little later than normal when we set out. A mist was rising in places, from last night’s rain. Cool, the humidity began to bead on my glasses. I stepped over piles of leaf litter and cones washed throughout the path in piles. Looking at the streams, they seemed excited, dancing over the rocks.

Coming between a couple of large boulders supporting tall, waving trees whose roots gripped like fingers to the rock, we saw an old man. The smoke from his small pipe drifted lazily upward as he sat on a rock. I noticed his clothing was somewhat unusual. The path led us to the man; as we approached, Moe a little wary but tail wagging, he looked up and smiled.

After a friendly greeting we began to talk.

“My wife will be along soon,” he said. “She's a wonderful woman. She loves dogs. She'll like this one.” The man scratched Moe's ear as she got closer to gingerly sniff his trousers. “Is she a mutt?”

I told him what I believed was Moe’s varied ancestry. We discussed that the day was quite beautiful despite the mist, maybe because of it and how this was such a nice place to wander. I asked how he had met his wife.

“She saved me, she did.”

I asked him, how?

“From a dragon,” he said and took a puff on his pipe, the smoke once more gently rising towards the branches drooping above us.

I wasn't sure what to say, so I sat down on a fallen tree and listened.

“We lived in a small cottage in a small town where we told stories to small children. Sometimes when it rained in the summer, we would come here and we'd dance beneath the showering clouds and dripping trees. Too old for that now, I think.”

I smiled.

“We grew together,” he said. “Aged together, and joked about each other farting. Her’s were sweeter than mine, and she always let me know! We always held hands, except when we were cooking together, or reading. Sometimes we'd write poems to each other and hide them so we'd find them later. It was more than once when I hid mine too well and would have to unhide them.”

I couldn't help but laugh at this. I turned about to see between the branches. There was still no sign of the man’s wife.I wondered at what type of person she was. They were obviously happy together. Geese flew overhead, and I looked up. Their cries filled the air. Moe jumped about, then spotting a squirrel chased after it.

“Lively one, that dog of yours.”

“She is that. Her name's Moe.”

“What, for Maureen?”

“No, just Moe. M O E.”

“She likes the woods, eh?”

I nodded. “She does.” There was still no sign of his wife. “Moe loves most places I take her,” I told the man.

He looked over his shoulder, then turning back opened a pocket watch that appeared in his hand. Gazing at the watch face, he shrugged. The watch looked old but well kept, the kind I wouldn’t mind owning one day. He lifted his face and spoke. “We loved going to town market. It always seemed an adventure. The market sellers was always smiling at us. It was as if we were rich and they wanted us to spend all our money on them. But they knew we weren't. We had fun tasting the wares, though, especially if they had chocolates. It was rare they ‘ad chocolates, though. If the old bookseller was at the market, we would sit and read bits of books and stories to each other, buying our favourite to read at home together later.

“My favourite was when one of townspeople would visit and play the fiddle for us. I was getting on then.  We would slowly dance in each other's arms, eventually collapsing on the sofa and we'd fall asleep still wrapped in an embrace.” The man smiled and gazed off, as if remembering something from a long time ago.

“One o’ me friends said our kisses could light the skies, that fireflies glowed more brightly when me and the missus kissed, the crickets would chirp louder, and birds sing more sweetly! At least that's what he said.”

The old man looked about again. He sighed. “Seems she’s not coming today. Maybe tomorrow.” He sat gently tapping his pipe on the rock, watching the tobacco fall to the forest floor. Lifting a foot, he stamped the tobacco out in the damp earth. “Oh well. I hope I didn’t bore ya. I don’t get to meet too many folks who notice me out here in the woods. Folk are funny these days it seems. Won’t even look ya in the eye.”

“You didn’t bother me at all. It’s nice to meet you. A pleasure. I should get on though. Work and all that.” I turned and called for Moe, who came bounding towards me and leaped up on the rock the old man and been sitting on. The old man had vanished. I stared at Moe.

It was then I realized that the man had only talked in the past tense. I looked at where the burned tobacco had fallen, and sniffed the air, but could see no sign of it nor smell the tobacco. It occurred to me that he had never told me his name, nor how his wife had rescued him from the dragon.

© Simon Brooks, 27th September, 2018